Posts Tagged ‘Hollywood’

(Across the Void, by S.K. Vaughan. Skybound Books/Simon & Schuster, 2019, $27.00, 371 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

The Library Journal review of Across the Void reveals that the author is “a pseudonym for an accredited film writer and director.” This explains why Across the Void reads like an expanded screenplay, and why it serves as an excellent illustration in printed form of the contempt with which Hollywood holds science fiction fans.

Vaughn’s novel is a decently written if cliched damsel-in-distress sci-fi thriller/mystery — injured astronaut with no memory of what happened to her awakens on a crippled space ship — that’s marred by, among other things, scientific illiteracy. Two examples: 1) the crew supposedly spent a week on the surface of Europa, an intensely radioactive environment, where an hour’s exposure would be extremely dangerous and a day’s exposure would cause severe radiation sickness and death; and 2) howlers such as, “Unfortunately, the star fields 621,000 miles in all directions are unidentifiable, . . .” a statement so nonsensical that it’s not even wrong.

(Why the odd figure 621,000? The author evidently realizes that a million kilometers equals 621,000 miles, and probably thinks American readers are too dumb to know that. Never mind that “621,000 miles” makes no sense at all in regard to “star fields.”)

There’s also an unnecessary flashback to open the book, a bit of bathos (in the relationship of the astronaut and her estranged husband — who of course comes to her rescue), and some heavy-handed passages designed to reveal character and/or wow the reader, none of which helps. Nor does the author having nothing of interest to say about damn near anything.

I only read the first 50 pages or so of this one, so the remaining 300+ pages might comprise a sci-fi masterpiece. But somehow I doubt it.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (large pdf sample here). He’s currently if sporadically working on the sequel to Free Radicals, an unrelated sci-fi novel, and a nonfiction book on the seamier sides of Christianity (24 Reasons to Abandon Christianity, which will appear in 2020).

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

Hail Caesar! posterThis latest from the Coen Brothers will appeal to Coen Brothers fans. It should also appeal to film buffs. As for everyday movie goers, it’s anyone’s guess. (I saw the film opening night, and it’s a good bet that most of the audience consisted of Coen fans.)

Set in 1951, Hail Caesar is a mostly appreciative, often funny, in part contemptuous look at the Hollywood system of the times and the genres of the films it produced. Those genres include the biblical epic, the aquatic spectacle (think Ethel Merman–played here by Scarlet Johannson), the naval musical (yes, they existed), film noir, the drawing room farce, the singing-cowboy western, and one nonHollywood genre: the socialist-realist propaganda film, complete with a male chorus singing a mock-heroic minor key dirge in the background.

The story revolves around two central characters, Josh Brolin as hard-driving studio head and fixer, Eddie Mannix, and George Clooney as the leading man in the biblical epic, “Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ.” Both are very good, and Clo0ney, as clueless actor Baird Whitlock, is quite funny in many scenes. There’s also a group of Communists, including one screenwriter who looks very much like Bryan Cranston playing Dalton Trumbo. But among the minor characters, Tilda Swinton, playing on-the-outs, one-upping twin gossip columnists stands out; she’s simply spot on, and I’d liked to have seen more of her.

The plot, which concerns the disappearance of the hard-drinking, womanizing Whitlock near the end of the filming of the biblical epic, and the attempts to find him, is minimal. It largely serves as the glue holding together the very well staged and well shot “homages” (“mockages” might be closer) to the various genres and the many jokes, both obvious and “in,” throughout the film.

The secondary nature of the plot, and the film’s many disparate elements, make it difficult to classify Hail Caesar! Is it a farce, a satire, a detective film, an homage, a historical “dramedy”? Who knows. Who cares. It works.


H Walked Among Us by Norman Spinrad front cover

(NOTE: We just ran a revised and expanded review of this book.)

(He Walked Among Us, by Norman Spinrad. Tor, 2009, 540 pp., $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

For decades, Norman Spinrad has been one of the most prolific and under-appreciated science fiction writers. He’s written dozens of novels, some great, some not so great–which puts him in good company: almost all prolific authors are inconsistent, even Shakespeare, who on occasion could have used a good editor. There are some real jewels among Spinrad’s works, notably The Iron Dream and Mindgame, but He Walked Among Us is arguably Spinrad’s best novel.

It concerns a Borscht Belt comedian, Ralf (no last name), who bills himself as “the comedian from from the future,” from “Deathship Earth,” where the few wretched survivors huddle inside abandoned shopping malls on a poisoned planet; Ralf’s shtick consists of mercilessly berating his audience for their stupidity and environmental irresponsibility . While performing one evening at a dive Catskills resort, Ralf is discovered by the novel’s most entertaining character, Texas Jimmy Balaban, an agent for second-string comics, who drinks a lot, is very “Hollywood,”  and isn’t above using his position to get laid, but is basically honest and has always “tried to be a mensch”–in other words, he’s about as good as it gets as far as agents go.

Very shortly, Texas Jimmy takes Ralf to Hollywood and lands him a gig hosting a low-budget talk show, The Word According to Ralf,  on one of the minor TV networks. Ralf, who always remains in character, and insists that he actually is from the future, quickly runs out of steam with his gloom-doom-and-abuse routine, and at that point Texas Jimmy calls in new age acting coach Amanda Robbin and hard science fiction author and screenwriter Dexter Lampkin to recast Ralf and to save the show. Very shortly, Ralf becomes the prophet from “Starship Earth,” who’s here to save the planet, and the show begins to gain popularity due to its more upbeat tone and the conflict between the new agers Amanda books as guests and the scientific types Dexter books.

As part of the attempt to save the show, Dexter turns to a community about which he has very mixed feelings: sci-fi fandom, as witness the following excerpts told from Dexter’s point of view:

Oscar Karel was a familiar figure at science fiction conventions. With his massive paunch flowing seamlessly into his enormous ass without benefit of a waistline and his narrow shoulders and chicken-chest, Oscar Karel was shaped like a giant overweight penguin. At a science fiction convention, his physical appearance would have hardly been noticed, since this was a dominant fannish genotype . . .

Most of the hotel personnel would never have seen so many grossly overweight people together at the same time, and even if they had, certainly not wearing T-shirts and capris and jeans and harem costumes in such perfectly blithe disregard of the exceedingly unfortunate fashion statement.

Globuloids, Bob Silverberg called them.

There are a great many similarly funny, mostly less acerbic, passages scattered throughout the book.

 Without giving too much away, the remainder of He Walked Among Us deals with the conflicts between Ralf, Balaban, Amanda, and Dexter, their efforts to save the show, and an emerging desire to actually save the Earth.

One ingenious aspect of this novel is that while Ralf is the center of gravity around which all else revolves, he is not one of the point-of-view characters. Rather, the story is told from the point of view of other characters, including “Foxy Loxy,” a New York crack whore who, in an apparently separate story, descends into graphically described madness, violence, and degradation. The segments dealing with Foxy (aka “Rat Girl”) are riveting and all too easy to buy, but are unpleasant reading, made more so by the very close third-person narration in her segments. Through over 80% of He Walked Among Us, while dark suspicions grow, the reader is left wondering “How in hell will this tie in with the rest of the story?”

The other p.o.v. characters are Texas Jimmy, Dexter, and Amanda.  Dexter, one strongly suspects, is modeled at least in part on Spinrad himself; Dexter is conflicted about his career, doing meaningless writing jobs simply to make ends meet, unhappy about sales of his sci-fi novels, and ambivalent about his fans, who he’s harnessing to promote Ralf and their mutual save-the-Earth agenda. Amanda is the least interesting of the main characters, though she, like the others is well drawn and believable–she reminds me of too many new agers I’ve known over the years.

Eventually, all the threads of the story converge, including the “Rat Girl” narrative, with all the dread it entails. How Spinrad resolves it is unexpected, but it works.

Until literally the final paragraph, I couldn’t figure out how Spinrad was going to end this book. But he does, and the ending is perfect.

I haven’t read a book in ages I’ve enjoyed as much as He Walked Among Us. It’s very, very funny, thought provoking, and in the end both touching and inspiring.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover